Marian Wright Edelman Addresses Conference on Minority Youth in the Courts
By Anita Womack-Weidner
Marian Edelman, Founder and President, Children's Defense Fund
The founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) told a conference of lawyers, judges, caseworkers and researchers that a new movement is needed to redirect political and economic policies toward families in an effort to stem the growing tide of poor minority children involved in the family and criminal court systems.
“ New York State spends 3.4 times more per prisoner than for public school pupil,” said keynote speaker Marian Wright Edelman of the CDF. “I can’t think of a dumber investment policy. The most important thing we can all do is to keep them [juveniles] out of the system in the first place … and get them out as early as we can.”
The conference, entitled “The Disproportionate Number of Minority Youth in the Family and Criminal Court Systems,” was sponsored by the UCS Franklin J. Williams Judicial Commission on Minorities and the New York State Family Court Judges Association. Held at the New York State Judicial Institute on Sept. 18, the conference also included community group leaders and law enforcement officials.
Edelman has been an advocate for disadvantaged Americans, particularly children, all her life. She was the first black woman admitted to the Mississippi bar and directed the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund office in Jackson, Miss. Edelman established the CDF in 1973.
Many poor, disadvantaged children of color face marginal lives and premature death without intervention, Edelman told the conference. Poverty leads to a lack of access to medical and mental health care and, typically, placement in failing schools. Research also links poverty to risks of abuse, neglect, academic failure, delinquency and violence. “Although they represent only 34 percent of the U.S. adolescent population, minority youths represent 62 percent of the youths in detention,” Edelman said. “One in three black boys born in 2001 will spend time in prison at some point in their lives.”
In a letter included in the conference program, Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye, who introduced Edelman, cited New York’s statistics. “Last year over 100,000 young people appeared in [ New York’s family and criminal] courts,” she wrote. “In New York City, 90 percent of these young people were minorities. A significant percentage were minorities even in areas of the state with a small minority population.”
Lawyer and clinical psychologist Michael L. Lindsey told the conference that proportionality [of minorities in the foster care and justice systems] has its greatest impact when discretion is used. “If discretion is exercised, minorities don’t usually get the benefit,” said Lindsey.
The following were among the recommendations made at the conference workshops:
- increase the number of family court judges
- focus family court proceedings on the entire family, not just the child
- investigate why children of color don't receive the same services as other foster care children
- improve juvenile justice data collection
- improve monitoring of the system and its players
- review drug arrest policies (panel members said low-level marijuana possession arrests bring many juveniles into the system)
- reduce discretion in parole/probation revocations
- explore electronic monitoring in lieu of detention
The conference was the brainchild of Bronx Family Court Judge Gayle P. Roberts, president of the Family Court Judges Association, and Kings County Supreme Court Justice Cheryl E. Chambers.
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